In Tunisia’s tourist heartland, anxious wait after attack

Japanese, Spanish, Italian and Colombian tourists were among the victims when at least two gunmen opened fire

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The European visitors strolling Tunisia’s Hammamet resort are an encouraging sign for a government determined to minimize the fallout of last week’s shooting of 20 tourists in the nearby capital.

But there is anxiety about the future in the five-star hotels, trinket shops and restaurants in the town, where horse-drawn carts trot calmly in the Mediterranean sun.

Japanese, Spanish, Italian and Colombian tourists were among the victims when at least two gunmen opened fire on their buses as they arrived at the Tunis Bardo Museum, which houses some of the Roman artifacts that are one of Tunisia’s major draws.

Tourism minister Salma Loumi said the impact from the attack appeared limited so far, with a few cancellations but words of encouragement from travel agency and tour company partners for the north African country’s mostly package-holiday bookings.

Six million tourists, mostly Europeans, hit Tunisia’s yellow sand beaches, desert treks and medina souks last year, providing seven percent of its gross domestic product, most of its foreign currency revenues and more jobs than anything but farming.

The attackers clearly aimed to cut this lifeline.

“They wanted to hit us through our economic backbone,” Loumi told Reuters. “But they won’t succeed.”

Her ministry’s figures show visitors numbers have yet to catch up with the years before the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in an uncertain period of political transition.

Now that democracy and political compromise have emerged, the country hopes to revive economic growth and is counting on attractions like its Carthage Roman ruins and the great mosque of Kairouan, part of a UNESCO heritage site.

In the south, tourists also visit Tataouine, the desert town made famous for scenes filmed for the Star Wars movies, and the island of Djerba for beaches like those in Hammamet.

“If the tourists don’t come, then we’ll start worrying,” said Hammamet shop owner Shukri Barhoumi.

“So far we’re not seeing any consequences, tourists don’t seem to be worried ... But it’s not the season yet, maybe we’ll see the impact in a few weeks.”

Discreet security

President Beji Caid Essebsi has ordered the army to protect major cities and more than 20 people have been arrested since the attack.

Security forces at the scene shot dead two gunmen who they said had been trained by jihadis in neighboring Libya, where chaos has allowed Islamic State affiliates to grow.

But another is still on the loose and some of more than 3,000 Tunisians to join Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Syria have returned home, raising fears of more attacks.

After Wednesday’s Bardo assault, several tour companies suspended some services to Tunis, notably the cruise ship owners who, shaken by the deaths of some of their passengers in the attacks, said they would bypass the city for the time being.

An initial study by the finance ministry estimated that losses for the industry may reach $700 million, compared with annual revenues from tourism in 2014 of close to $2 billion.

Civilian police have discreetly increased their presence on the palm-fringed boulevards of Hammamet, where only a small police checkpoint is visible. But some visitors said tour operators had suspended trips to Roman ruins and desert treks.

“We have had some cancellations, which is understandable,” said Marouen Kilani, a director for Spanish firm RIU Club Marco Polo. “For the summer high season we’re still at full occupancy.”

Militants have targeted the tourism industry before. An al Qaeda suicide bomber killed 21 people in 2002 in the southern island of Djerba. In 2013, another bomber blew himself up on the beach in Sousse. No one else was killed.

“We still think it’s the most stable place in North Africa,” said retired Scottish chemist Charlie Welsh who was on a repeat visit to Tunisia. “It is not going to stop us going on holiday.”